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Jeremiah Shook pushed open the swinging doors of the Saloon with both hands and stepped inside, pausing just past the threshold to sweep his gaze around the room. Scattered at tables and the bar, men in the rough garb of laborers and cattle-hands looked up at him curiously; he nodded once to the room at large, then stepped inside and made his way to an empty table. A few pairs of eyes followed him till he sat, but most turned back to their drinks, conversations and card games. His dark suit was of a more moneyed cut than most of them wore, but not by much.
He could afford better, but rarely bothered. In his line of work, clothes tended to get mussed pretty quickly.
“Nice entrance,” said the waitress, sidling up to him. “Classic. You’re a fan of cowboy fiction, I take it?”
She was mocking him. Bile rose in his throat; he pushed it back down, giving her an easy smile. “Tell me honestly: how many out-of-town visitors feel the need to do that at least once?”
“Pretty much all of ’em,” she said with a grin, “but you’ve got them mostly beat for self-awareness. What’ll it be, stranger?” She was an elf, a pleasingly slender little piece with sharp features and almost childlike eyes, but where elves were almost always some shade of blonde, her hair was a glossy raven black. He’d eat his boots if there were two women of that description in a town this size, but the proprieties must be observed.
“A wanderer like me is compelled to keep simple tastes,” he said, a rueful grin camouflaging his use of Guild codes for the sake of the onlookers. “At least, till I get settled in and figure how well my business will fare in this town.”
“So, cheap whiskey, then?” She winked, but her smile was sympathetic. “You’re in luck; Last Rock is kind to wanderers. They bring us most of our custom, after all. The welcome’s warm and the drinks are…substantially less awful than they could be.” Her reply covered all the Guild countersigns and told him everything he needed about the current situation. No current business active, no pressure from police. A ripe town; it was ironic that they were both specialists in particular fields and not positioned to begin relieving the townsfolk of their money.
“Cheap, but not the cheapest,” he replied. “Upgrade me from ‘less awful’ to ‘not awful,’ if y’don’t mind.”
“Ooh, big spender! Anything in particular want it to wash down?”
“Just here to drink for now, doll.”
“And drink you shall, darlin’. Back in two shakes.” She sashayed off; he indulged in a half-moment’s perusal of her backside before returning his attention to the room at large. Principia had a cute little tush, but he didn’t yet know how well-liked she was in this town. Based on what Tricks had told him of her, he suspected not very, but ogling a woman who the locals held in esteem was a quick way to get on everybody’s shit list. Best not to take foolish risks till he had is bearings.
Nobody was even looking at him. In addition to finding out where Principia lurked, he’d taken advantage of his day at the Ale & Wenches to learn a bit about the town. Last Rock got most of its income from the University, one way or another. Quite a few of the students had more money than was good for them, and the townsfolk had grown adept at squeezing it out of them without cultivating any bad blood. Aside from that and the local cattle industry, the town did business largely with passing adventurers. The Age of Adventures might be over, but the Golden Sea still held the promise of riches for the skilled and the lucky. The town saw a decent traffic in heavily-armed loners heading into the prairie, and in some cases staggering back out of it, and there were tradesmen who made a good living seeing to their needs. He was clearly neither student nor adventurer, and thus of little interest to the men in this room.
“Here we go,” Principia breezed, returning and setting a bottle and glass on the table. “Whiskey, and a clean glass, because I like you. So tell me, wanderer, what’s this business that brings you to our dusty little town?”
“This year, it’s alchemy.” He set a small stack of copper coins on the table before pouring himself a drink; she deftly made them vanish into her apron. “Cures, minor enhancements, that sort of thing. I’ve a modest stock with me and the option to send back to Tiraas for more if the ground here proves fertile.”
“Oh?” She leaned one hip saucily against his table, folding her arms in a manner that framed her bust. Like most elves, she wasn’t particularly buxom, but had clearly selected her dress and apron to maximally accentuate her assets. “Now, would that be real, effective alchemy, by any chance?”
“Y’know, that’s a fairer question than I might admit in other circumstances,” he replied with a grin, taking a sip of the whiskey. She was right; it wasn’t awful. “I’m not ashamed to say I’ve peddled a few vials of snake oil in my day; a man has to make a living. But in the end, there’s no future in it. The real stuff’s where the money is, once you’ve built up enough of a nest egg to invest in a basic stock.”
“There’s a town alchemist, you know,” she said. “He may not appreciate the competition.”
“Mm. Then again, he may not mind. I’m sure we can come to an understanding.” Shook sipped his drink again. “There are lucrative but shady concoctions an upstanding local business owner may not want to pass across his counter. Not to mention the kind of characters he wouldn’t want to pass ’em to. I’m confident I can keep out of his hair.”
“Well, I know the lot of the casual tradesman,” she said with a sly smile. “I do a side business in minor enchantments as well. In a town like this, it’s enough to keep me drinking a slightly better quality of whiskey than that.”
“Good to know,” he said appreciatively. “Fertile grounds after all?”
“Oh, you’d better believe it. Between the college kids and the wannabe heroes, you can always find someone willing to trade his coin and his common sense for a little edge.”
“Perhaps we might have business to discuss, then. We are in similar fields, after all.”
“Perhaps,” she purred. “I just know there’s something mutually beneficial we can find to talk about.”
“Hey, Prin, how about this,” rumbled the man behind the nearby bar. “How’s about you see to the business I’m actually payin’ you for while you’re on shift. Table three needs drinks.”
“It seems there is a whiskey crisis and only my unique combination of brains and beauty can see justice done,” she said wryly, straightening up, and tipped him a flirtatious wink. “I will see you later, handsome. I’m off at ten.”
“Good to know,” he murmured again into his glass as she swished away.
He was going half stir-crazy by the time ten o’clock rolled around. There was nothing to damn well do in this wretched patch of streets they called a town. Only the two pubs, a bunch of shops of various kinds, and one hotel that didn’t offer a public drinking room, preferring to maintain a calm atmosphere for its clientele. Shook stayed the hell away from that place while he was in this mood, well aware he might otherwise end up burning bridges he’d not even crossed yet. What kind of frontier town didn’t even have a whorehouse?
It didn’t help at all that Principia made him wait. He lounged against the front wall of the Saloon, working quietly away at a cigar, while ten PM drifted by and retreated further into the distance. Passersby nodded to him, and he nodded politely in return; some gave him curious looks, but he wasn’t challenged. Doubtless the locals didn’t see much aimless loitering, but clearly they didn’t see much real trouble either. He took his time at the cigar, it being his only excuse for hanging around outdoors, but it would only burn so slowly. If she made him light up another one…
Principia finally emerged from the swinging double doors with a splash of panache that made his eye twitch, as if she hadn’t a care in the world, nor anybody standing out in the dark waiting on her.
“You’re late,” he noted, barely keeping his tone under control.
“Ah, ah, ah,” she said sweetly, wagging a finger at him. “I’m an elf, a thief and a woman. That’s three separate flavors of doing whatever the hell I want and automatically being right. Shall we?” Slinking up to him, she wrapped herself around his arm, giving him an up-through-the-lashes look that she had doubtless practiced.
Shook drew in a deep, slow breath, forcibly repressing the first five urges that came to mind. Not much got under his skin faster than a woman with an uppity attitude. He flicked the remains of his cigar to the ground and crushed it under his heel before stepping away from the wall and heading at a sedate pace back toward the center of town—such as it was—with the elf clinging to his arm the whole way. Doubtless they looked like any pair of lovers out for an evening stroll.
He glanced about swiftly. Despite the late hour and the general dinkiness of Last Rock, they weren’t entirely alone. There was a faint sound of carousing from the Ale & Wenches, even though they were several streets distant from it, and lights on in a few windows. For the moment, they had the street to themselves, however.
“This’n’s gone larking after catching the birdsong,” he said quietly. “A big bird tweeted of—nf!”
“Stop that,” she said sharply but in a similarly low tone, punctuating it with a fist to his ribs and very nearly earning herself one in the eye. Principia continued on, apparently heedless of the hazards to her health she was accumulating. “Don’t use cant in this town, you’ll bring all manner of hell down on our heads.”
Shook drew a deep, slow breath in through his teeth, counting to ten as Sweet had instructed him once upon a time. “Unless you have a quiet place to talk…”
“The street is plenty quiet. Oh, unclench your sphincter, you’re gonna burst something. Look, you know the three kinds of invisibility, right? Tell me you have at least that much savvy.” The look she gave him, up through her lashes, was equal parts condescension and amusement.
Right then, he decided he wasn’t going to get through this job without smacking that mouth of hers. It was just a matter of when.
“Can’t see, don’t see and won’t see,” the elf explained, as much as calling him an untrained fool right to his face. “You probably think of the cant as a ‘can’t see,’ and you’d be partly right. There are probably a few outsiders who can puzzle it out, but not enough to matter. But in Tiraas, where the Guild is a significant power, it’s also a ‘won’t see.’ People hear the cant spoken and know it’s time to find some business elsewhere and mind it. Last Rock is different. Nobody will pay any attention to two people acting as they expect, but between the damn students and the so-called adventurers, anyone hearing a snatch of theives’ cant has a good chance of figuring out what it is, even if they can’t follow it. Then all hell breaks loose.”
He was only listening to her witless prattle with half an ear. A man had stepped out from around the corner up ahead and was ambling toward them on their side of the street. In the darkness, he couldn’t make out any details except for the hat and the rattle of spurs, but he shifted his fingers toward the knives hidden in his sleeves. “Shush, girl, let me handle this,”
“Here, I’ll show you,” she said, ignoring him, and then actually waved to the figure ahead. “Evening, Sheriff!”
“Prin,” the man replied, tugging the brim of his hat politely, while Shook tensed, ready for a fight. “I don’t believe I’ve met your friend.”
“He’s an itinerant salesman passing through town,” Principia went on cheerily. “I’m gonna take him back to my rooms under the pretext of letting him under my skirt, then slip him a mickey, rob his ass blind and skip town!”
“Dammit to Vidius, Prin, no!” The Sheriff clapped a hand over his eyes, disturbing his ridiculous ten-gallon hat. “You know I have to take that stuff seriously. Don’t even joke.”
“If he doesn’t have anything worth stealing, I may even slit his throat!” she said, grinning ghoulishly, and leaned closer to the Sheriff, drawing her next word out with relish. “Mmmmmuuuuurrrrderrrr.”
“No. Absolutely not, the hell with this. I don’t have the patience for your bullshit tonight.” The lawman swiped a hand across the empty space between them, as if wiping Principia and her companion from existence. “This didn’t happen, I never saw you, go away. And you, stranger.” He paused, leveling a finger at Shook. “I don’t care how pretty she is, I don’t care if you’ve never had an elf before and been dreaming of it since before you could shave, this one is not worth the trouble. She ain’t gonna do anything as gentle as what she just promised, but I guarantee she’ll give you a bigger pain in the ass than a joint case of sunburn and crabs. You have a pleasant night, people I don’t see.”
Principia laughed aloud in evident delight as the Sheriff stepped into the street to go around them, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge her any further. Shook glowered down at her, and had to be tugged along impatiently before he continued moving.
“See?” she went on in a more circumspect tone. “I have a rep in this town. People know me, and know what I’m about: shady business, but strictly small potatoes with a side of aimless mischief. I’m seen strolling around in the middle of the night with the new salesman in town, they’ll just assume I’m out to bed and/or swindle you. Anybody passes close enough to hear a snatch of conversation, they’re not likely to make anything of it, because a snatch is all they’ll hear. On the off chance someone does overhear a dirty word like ‘steal,’ well, that’s just me again, and as the good Sheriff Sanders just demonstrated, messing around in my business is more of a pain than it’s worth. However, if someone hears the resident ne’er-do-well and the new guy talking in the thieves’ goddamn cant, that will get their attention. They will then go get the Sheriff’s attention, and it’s a toss-up whether he’ll then go get the Empire or Tellwyrn’s attention first, and it’s equally a toss-up which of those things would ruin our day faster or more thoroughly. So, at the expense of repeating myself…” Again, she looked up at him through her lashes, but this time her expression was hard and her voice dropped to a hiss. “Knock it the fuck off, newbie.”
“Mm hm. You about done?”
“I believe that covers the basics, yeah. So, how’s about you tell m—”
Despite his original intention to avoid attention, trouble and people in general, he had allowed her to lead them toward the A&W, where lamplight and laughter spilled out through windows and a set of swinging doors much like the Saloon had. They weren’t yet in front of the building, and thus within sight of its windows, and the noise did, he had to acknowledge, provide a little auditory cover. After glancing briefly about the square next to the Rail platform to verify that the Sheriff had passed from sight and nobody else was about, Shook grabbed her by the upper arms and darted into the alley between the A&W and the general store beside it. He lifted the elf bodily from the ground to prevent her digging her heels in. She hardly weighed anything.
Prinicipia didn’t struggle or protest as she was carted a few feet down the alley, not far enough that they’d be hidden, but not in immediate sight from the street. She did let out a soft grunt as he slammed her back against the stone wall of the general store, then covered her body with his own. To any passerby, they were just a couple necking in a patch of improvise privacy. “Won’t see,” indeed.
“I’m Thumper,” he said in a bare whisper, inches from her pointed ear. “Want to guess why?”
“An homage to your exquisite dancing skills, no doubt,” she said lightly.
He lifted her away from the wall momentarily, then slammed her back into it. This time, she made no sound, just giving him an ironic look with a raised eyebrow. This time, too, he shifted his position to place a hand around her throat, and so wasn’t fooled by her cool act. He could feel her pulse.
“I’m an enforcer,” Thumper breathed. “You do know what that is, don’t you? Not much of one for cutting purses, jimmying locks or running cons. Some of those in my line like to crack heads in alleys and collect the Unwary Tax that way. Me? I’m a creature of order. A true servant of Eserion and his Guild. I don’t like it when the Guild’s business is disrupted, when the Guild has problems. I made problems go away…or at least rethink their choices. So the question, Keys, is this: Are you going to be a problem?”
“Does Tricks know you’re out manhandling Guild members this way?” she asked lightly. “You wanna be careful, Thumper, or the Boss might decide you need someone to come around and…’solve’ you.”
“I asked you a question,” he said in a mild tone. “I expect an answer.”
“I find that expectations are exactly the kind of—”
He drew back just enough to lift his hand from her throat and slap her, then backhanded her face drawing it back the other way. Her head bounced against the wall behind her, those big, pretty eyes going momentarily out of focus.
“Tricks gave me the rundown on you, Keys,” he said softly. He lifted his hand again, grinning in satisfaction at her flinch, but this time just brushed the backs of his knuckles over her cheek. “He knows you got yourself assigned to this shithole town to work some angle of your own. Probably something to do with Tellwyrn, since all you’re supposed to be doing…all there really is to do in Last Rock…is watching to make sure she doesn’t pull anything harmful to the Guild’s interests. He knows you don’t like taking orders, that you fancy yourself above any authority. That is why he sent me, Keys. I wasn’t brought to Last Rock to carry out an assignment; I came here to give you orders for your new one…” Thumper leaned in closer, near enough that his breath was hot on her face. “…and ride you as hard as I have to to make sure you fucking do it. So I’m gonna ask my question one more time. It’s a simple question, for a simple girl, all it needs is one word: yes or no. You’re gonna answer the question accordingly. So tell me, Keys. Are you going to be a problem?”
“No,” she said quietly. Somehow, the silly trollop managed to fill the word with another dose of her dry, disdainful attitude. He let it pass, for the moment. Plenty of time to straighten her out later.
“Good girl,” he said approvingly, stroking her black hair once and enjoying the grimace the flickered across her features. “Then let’s talk about the job.”
Thumper drew back slightly, granting her a little breathing room, though he kept one hand gripping her upper arm. Keys, evincing some basic common sense for the first time since he’d met her, didn’t attempt to pull away from him or offer any further sass. Those blue eyes watched him carefully.
“We’ve got trouble with Elilial and the Black Wreath,” he began, nodding at her when her eyes widened. “Yeah, that’s bad. They’re not after us, but they’re fucking with both the Church and the Empire in a big way, bigger than usual. Do I need to explain all the thousands of ways this could cause problems for the Guild? No? That’s my girl. The Guild isn’t getting involved directly, but the Boss is preparing for a situation in which we might need to, and that means casing. Lots and lots of casing. We need information, and you are going to help us acquire it. Right now, the only other player who the Boss knows is involved in this is Arachne Tellwyrn. What we know is she’s responded favorably to an overture from the Throne, and she’s personally beaten the hell out of at least one Wreath cell recently. We need better intel than that. And since you’re not only conveniently on site but have a history with Tellwyrn, you’re going to get it for us.”
“Tricks is out of his fucking mind,” she breathed. “There is no possible good result from screwing around with Tellwyrn. The only safe plan for dealing with her is to watch from a circumspect distance and give warning if she starts making noises on our direction. Y’know, what I’ve been doing.”
“Actually, as I understand it this was Sweet’s idea,” he said lightly, “but the orders come from the Boss. So that’s what you’ll be doing.”
“Then you can tell the Boss he’s asking for what can’t be—”
She managed to brace herself slightly, this time, as he slammed her against the wall again. “In the years you’ve been farting around out here in the sticks, Keys, you seem to have started confusing the Guild with the law. The Guild does not need to prove that you’re trying to fuck us over beyond a reasonable doubt; if it knows damn well that you are, that’s it for you. You’re clever, you’re stealthy, you’re good at not getting caught. Those are the skills you are being ordered to use. They are not skills that will protect you if you decide to challenge the Boss’s authority. And since it apparently hasn’t sunk in yet, as far as you’re concerned…” He leaned closer again, pressing his stubbled cheek against her smooth one to whisper right into her ear, “I am his authority. Do the job, Keys.”
“I can’t get close to Tellwyrn!” she protested. “She knows me, I used to work with her a couple of decades back. She specifically told me to stay off her mountain and away from her students. I so much as try to snoop up there and she’ll fry my ass.”
“Well then,” he said, drawing back enough to let her see his grin, “sounds to me like you’ve got yourself a problem. Ah, ah, ah,” he chided, placing a finger over her lips as she opened her mouth to protest again, “I believe that’s enough lip out of you for one evening. Let me be clear: You’re a Guild member, Keys, but you are not a member in good standing. You’re not trusted, or liked. This is an opportunity for you to redeem yourself…or create the opportunity for the Guild to get you out of its hair for good. Tricks expects you to try to run instead of doing your job. That’s fine, I’m not to bother chasing after you if you bolt. In fact, I didn’t want to tell you this but he gave me firm orders, so here it is: you wanna pull a runner, you can. You’ll be a dark mark, and any Guild member who happens across you can bring back your head—attached or not—to make his own rep, but Tricks isn’t gonna bother sending anybody to do it. Course, he won’t be Boss forever, and elves live a long time, I hear. That’d be a stressful existence for you, waiting to see if each new Boss of the Guild decides to start tying up loose ends. But all that’s in the future. Let’s talk about the now.”
Thumper grinned even more broadly at her; still holding her arm with his left hand, he lowered his right to place against the side of her body at the ribs. She was as compact and delicate as all her race; he could clearly feel the frantic banging of her heart. “If you try to run and I do catch you before you get out of town… Or if you continue to refuse your assignment, or if you turn on the Guild and try to bring Tellwyrn or the law down on us, if you fail at your task… Or hell, if I find myself less than satisfied with your progress… Then you’re mine, Keys. I have full discretionary authority over this job, and what disciplinary measures need to be exercised.” He lowered his voice to a growl, and as he continued, slowly dragged his hand downward, brushing this thumb against the side of her breast, sliding it across her waist and then around to grip a handful of her rump. “In that event, Keys, the first thing I’m gonna do is bend you over the nearest level surface, hike up your skirt and take myself some recompense for the various insults and annoyances you’ve already caused me. And then we will get down to the disciplinary measures.”
For a silent moment, he held her that way, staring into her eyes. Her insouciance was gone, but nothing replaced it; she stared back up at him, face utterly blank.
Then, so suddenly that she staggered, he released her and stepped back. “Do the job, Keys. I’ll be checking in on you. Regularly.”
Thumper turned away and strolled nonchalantly back out the mouth of the alley, tucking his hands in his pockets. He didn’t look back at her as he went, not even when he turned left to amble toward the A&W’s door and the promise of a pint to wind down the evening. As such, he didn’t see the look she directed at his back. If he had, he wouldn’t have cared.
He had always had more self-confidence than self-preservation.